Rain takes many forms in Yongde County, southwest China's Yunnan Province. It drizzles, falls, or pours on the highland region, bringing water to the verdant landscape while nourishing its inhabitants.
But for Wang Fengjiao, who lives and teaches in the county, the rains used to be a source of anxiety for months on end. Whenever it rained, all she thought about was her daughter, who was studying in a makeshift classroom that wasn't rainproof.
"When it rained outside, it drizzled inside"
Until last July, Wang's daughter, together with some 400 other pupils, were still studying in improvised classrooms that had been pieced together with composite boards. As the structure was not entirely sealed, it was particularly susceptible to wind and water.
"On rainy days, water compounded with wind would sneak into the classrooms," Wang told People's Daily Online, "And the wet season here is super-long—it usually lasts for six months. So, the students used to hold their books in a constantly damp surrounding."
After a bumpy ride—it usually took over three and a half hours to drive from the mountain foot to the uphill campus—we arrived at the now-abandoned Minglang Primary School. The site was nestled snugly in lush green vegetation, and seen from a distance, seemed to be all right. But what the greenery couldn't camouflage was the interiors of those classrooms—they were basically vacant lots shaded by sheet metal canopy that could only offer scant protection.
"When it rained outside, it drizzled inside," said Yuan Wenxian, former headmaster of the primary school, "And sometimes, teachers had to fetch buckets to collect rainwater in the middle of a class." "The classrooms weren't soundproof either. As a result, the kids could literally hear the sounds from two classes at the same time," she added.
She pointed the metal roofing to explain how the seepage occurred, as we wandered around the empty classroom, observing the remnants of the students' challenging yet special school life. The interior was shabby, the floor dusty, and school desks wobbled, but the vivid doodles and handwriting on the blackboards as well as the cartoon stickers on the walls still managed to chronicle the knowledge, joy, and precious memories they shared together under this roof.
Built on the original site of the century-old primary school, the makeshift classrooms weren't designed to last. In fact, they were only meant to serve as a transition from the dilapidated campus to a brand-new school plant several miles away. The envisioned new school was proposed in 2016 and was slated for construction in 2018. But unfortunately, a perfect storm of mismanagement by the construction company, the sudden outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic and the drawn-out rainy seasons had brought the construction to intermittent halts.
Throughout the process, the pupils waited, grew up, and waited again. They waited for around five years.
Message received, work continued
Wang Fengjiao was scrolling on her phone when she noticed the Message Board for Leaders, a platform run by People's Daily Online that she had seen on the news but had never thought was relevant to her. She browsed carefully through the cases on the platform: how villagers complained about their tap water, how drivers reported the wrecked roads, and how migrant workers demanded their unpaid wages. She was amazed by how quickly those messages got a response and how actions were subsequently taken. On that cloudy afternoon in late December, she thought about her first-grade daughter and her rainy classroom. She decided to give it a try.
"Classrooms of multiple grades at Minglang Primary School were plain makeshift buildings, just like the places where workers temporarily live in construction sites. And the students have studied in those classrooms for at least 5 years," Wang wrote on the Message Board for Leaders on December 30, 2020. In that powerful online message, the middle school teacher described the difficult situation in which "students have to be relocated to the drier side of the rooms in order to continue their class when it rains."
She also complained about the delayed construction and brought up the environmental factors she believed future construction projects should take into account. "Minglang [village] has copious rainfall and it is very cold in winter—frostily cold. I hope those factors can be considered," she added.
After her initial experiment, she tried to imagine what answers she would receive, if at all. But she didn't expect that just three days after posting the message, she would be notified that the issue was being worked on.
Before that notification, the same message was synchronized to Yongde County's Bureau of Letters and Calls system and later transferred to the region's education and sports bureau.
On the last day of 2020, officials from Yongde's education and sports bureau sat in meeting with members from the construction company again to discuss the resumption of the project. Six days later, the company staff together with representatives from the two local bureaus entered the site, and construction of the new school resumed.
To make sure that students could study in decent and intact classrooms in the new semester, the local education and sports bureau set up a tight timetable and the construction company vowed to complete the project before August 30, a day before the new school year kicked off.
A formidable endeavor lay ahead of them: they had to race against not only the clock but also the environment and the weather. In order to build a new campus off the ground, they had to move mountains.
Roads were the very first obstacle they confronted. It took hours of careful driving to move construction materials uphill, and much longer at night. But a rutted mountain road was still better than no road at all. Since the site of the new campus was tucked away in a stretch of farmland, workers had to build a road from scratch that was long enough to meet the mountain road. "We had to fill and repair the road over and over again, as every time a truck passed by, it would do some damage to the road," Feng Ruwei, the project manager with the construction company, told People's Daily Online.
The unrelenting rain—what drove them to carry out the mission in the first place—also came to haunt them on the construction site. As the rains would make concrete pouring, brick masonry and other outdoor work impossible, they had to squeeze all those jobs into the first four months. "We rushed to cap the roof of the main structure in June. So, when the wet season came, we moved to the interior renovation part," said Feng.
Erecting a building might be solitary and specialized work, but building a school wasn't. Nearby villagers, sometimes after just finishing their farm work and with mud still on their trousers, would walk to the site to help in whatever way they could, no matter how trivial the task seemed: mopping the floor, paving the pebble pathway, and handing out food.
Brick by brick, the new Minglang Primary School was completed on September 1 as scheduled.
After the rain comes the rainbow
Upon our arrival at the new school, the first thing that struck us was not the grand school complex per se, but its color, an imposing and refreshing beige mixed with brick red. The freshly painted campus has a well-equipped teaching building, two independent dormitory buildings, and a spacious dining hall. An indoor stadium and a faculty building are currently under construction and will be put into operation early next year.
Accompanied by the ambient sound of reading and teaching, we entered an office on the second floor of the teaching building and had a chance to sit and talk with Wang Fengjiao, the mother and teacher who made all this possible, Lu Jianhua, headmaster of the primary school, and officials from the local government who had worked day and night to smooth the way for the project.
"I was very shocked that the response came so fast and that construction resumed just one week after my complaints," said Wang Fengjiao, still with gratification in her voice.
Looking back at her journey, she felt a strong sense of representation, making her realize that her voice matters. "My role was insignificant, as I only delivered the message; but during the whole process I felt that I was well-informed and well-respected," Wang said. "I felt I played a part in enhancing the sense of happiness of the whole [county]."
Currently, the primary school accommodates 19 classes, 758 students (most of whom board at school), and 42 teachers, according to the headmaster. With the allure of the new campus and its well-equipped classrooms, the new school is attracting more and more kids from nearby villages, he said.
As we walked out of the office and into a random classroom, the bell rang. The pupils, who just a second ago were reciting ancient Chinese poems, flocked onto the playground, where they played goat jumping, five stones, hand games, and other children's games. Rain-drenched classrooms and hurried evacuations in the middle of the class seemed to be a thing of the past; at that moment, they were enjoying their school life to the full.
At precisely 6 p.m. when the last bell of the day rang, a fountain next to the school playground suddenly sprayed water into the air, drawing many kids to cluster around it. As the lingering sunlight gently sparkled through the fountain, it left an artificial wonder. "Look, there's a rainbow!" one girl shouted excitedly to her friends.
Liu Ning, Sheng Shuang, and Xu Mingyue contributed to this story.